Songbird Sonnet 2009-12  burnt clay and ashes mounted in wooden frame

“Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” Shakespeare Sonnet 73

I have almost completed a piece that was started more than three years ago, a piece with a long gestation period and a convoluted development.

It began on a summers day when I was tracing the steps of English 19th c. watercolourist John Sell Cotman who spent August 1805 sketching the banks  of the River Greta in North Yorkshire. He had been a guest of the Morritts at Rokeby Hall but when the family left for a holiday Cotman moved into the inn across the road. His lonely sojourn resulted in some of the most enigmatic landscapes of the period and include his most famous work “Greta Bridge”.

Surprisingly it would seem that Cotman didn’t sketch the lost village of Brignall, a series of mere humps in a meadow surrounding a ruined church and graveyard sited upstream of the bridge. Just why the village was abandoned and the church left to rot is unclear. In the derelict graveyard I came across the crumbling tomb of the Reverend Ralph Johnson.

Researched revealed that Johnson had been the priest at Brignall during the latter half of the 17th century. He was interested in botany and was involved in some of the first attempts to collect and classify botanical specimens. He came to the attention of James Ray, now recognised as one of the most important early natural scientists, who stayed with Johnson at Brignall where he was fascinated by his collection of stuffed birds and fishes. Ray went on to use Johnson’s system of bird classification in his “Ornithology” of 1676, the first scientific book on British birdlife.

On his death in 1695 Ralph Johnson slipped from memory, his collections disappeared and his church left to ruin. The poignancy of the story and the romantic nature of the location made me think about the forms that a ghost collection could take. I also speculated on what it would have been like to walk the English countryside in Johnson’s day and imaged the large numbers of largely unrecorded species of plants, insects and birds he might have encountered. The meadows and hedgerows would have teemed with beetles, moths and butterflies and the woods and lanes would have echoed to the songs of thousands of small birds.

In stark contrast our woods and fields are largely silent. Songbird numbers have crashed in recent years. Intensive farming, the felling of broad-leaved woodland and the destruction of hedgerows are the major causes, illegal hunting is another.  Many British summer songbirds migrate south for the winter, crossing mainland Europe and the Mediterranean to Northern and Central Africa but on the way they must run the gauntlet of the hunter’s shotguns and mist nets. I photographed the killing fields in Malta when I was preparing “Searching for Ring Ouzels” a few years ago and found jealously guarded sites sprayed RTO (meaning ‘Reserved’ or ‘Keep Out”), staked out with a calvary of rusted iron rods marking the shooting stations. The fields were littered with shot gun cartridges.

Returning a couple of years later following Malta’s admission to the EU I found that the ramshackle field boundaries made from rusting military hardware and old washing machines had been replaced with new clean stone walls and heavy steel gates. The gateposts were freshly labelled RTO. Obviously Maltese landowners were happy to accept EU payouts to improve their infrastructure but not so keen to give up their illegal ‘sport’. Sadly it is still going on.

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Songbird Sonnet is made up of 200 bird skulls modelled in clay which have then been burnt on an open fire. I have found that by packing the skulls into tins and then roasting them for an hour or so the clay fires quite successfully with only a small number shattering with then intense heat. Scattering wood shavings and sawdust into the tins causes the clay to take on the colours of ash – white, grey and black. The wooden frame is from an old typesetter’s cabinet with compartments coated in grey ash.